About this Issue

Conservatives often talk about the modern world in terms of decline. Old traditions fall victim to market dynamism, integration, and globalization, and our society is the poorer for it. Newer isn’t better — it’s more superficial, less rooted, and less secure.

Those who make this type of argument are frequently tempted toward the creation of group rights or privileged statuses for traditional identities, behaviors, or social norms. Oddly, the left has at times agreed on just this critique, and on just these sorts of privileges in response. The authentic past, the authentic identity must be preserved, even at the cost of classical liberal ideas of rights. Marxist critiques of capitalist culture have long made just this point. As Marx himself famously said, industrialism means that “all that is solid melts into air.” To many, stopping it from doing so seems possibly a good idea.

In this month’s lead essay, political theorist Russell Arben Fox sounds a cautionary note. Traditions have always evolved, he argues; there is no pristine, fully authentic past out there to be found. The way to honor the past, he suggests, is to be conscious of it, yes, but also of the world in which we live, today. Traditionalism is an exercise in creative deployment, not just in today’s world, but always.

Is he right? Obviously, we are dealing with questions that involve culture as much as politics. To help sort them out, we have invited journalist and blogger Eve Tushnet, historian John Fea, and doctoral candidate in government James Poulos, also influential as the founder of the blog Postmodern Conservative.


Lead Essay

Traditionalism in a Changing World

We’ve just emerged from another cycle of what my father-in-law likes to refer to sarcastically as “Hallothanksmas.” I doubt he’s the only person to use that label to capture the smearing together of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas from early October through New Year’s Day. Indeed, it’s become commonplace to observe that our national marketplace appears to push the material elements and practices of these holidays uncomfortably close to each other. Charlie Brown and the gang complained about this exact phenomenon close to 40 years ago, and it has only become more obvious ever since.

I confess that I’m one of the complainers as well. I feel that holiday traditions may, and often do, play a role of some determinative, even normative importance in our lives, whether we realize it or not. Thus there is value in being able conceive of and respond to them distinctly. I feel that way because traditions are deeply associated with many other things I take seriously: local engagement, cultural identity, historical memory, familial attachment, and other “communitarian” goods. These don’t constitute a perfectly indivisible bundle, of course, but “traditionalism” is a thread that runs through them and to a degree connects them. Speaking up for tradition in our economically globalized and hyper-mobile world may be essential to making a case for the communitarian perspective as a whole.

Critics of the attempt to build up traditional beliefs and all their material accouterments aren’t necessarily opponents of holidays; I’m not trafficking in “war on Christmas” accusations here. Instead, their disagreement is usually with the moral claims of traditionalism in general — the idea that giving recognition and support to traditions can serve as both a personal and a public good, and consequently that observing traditions may have some moral obligation tied to it. One of these opponents’ assertions is that what appears to adherents of various traditions as morally worthy is really only a subjective perception of such. Tradition is constructed out of nostalgia and is the result of paying undue attention to isolated moments that can be prettified in our memories. Those who don’t live in a fully reactionary environment find themselves put on the spot: if their lives are in any way characterized by pluralism, then they must acknowledge that there is an element of willful construction involved in how a traditional belief or practice comes to include (and exclude) whatever it does. And that, supposedly, undermines the theoretical force of the moral claim made on behalf of traditions. How, the argument runs, could a subjectively experienced and consciously elaborated-upon moment from out of the whole historical sweep of events be construed as truly serving normative personal or public ends? There is no reason to think that the resulting practice or belief is anything but somewhat arbitrary.

A wonderful summation of this perspective was written by Scott McLemee several years ago, in an essay celebrating the Seinfeld-inspired “holiday” of Festivus. The fact that I just put “holiday” in quotations marks is, in a sense, McLemee’s point: Festivus is so wholly manufactured, so completely a creature of the mass media and the narcissistic world of ironic detachment, that it can’t be commemorated without any such observation becoming a comment on the constructed nature of all “holidays.” Festivus, McLemee wrote, is the “postmodern ‘invented tradition’ par excellence.” The implication is that all traditions are equally invented. Thus, narratives that presume some kind of moral authority associated with their maintenance, and that talk about change in terms of decline and loss, deserve the postmodern puncturing that Festivus provides. McLemee invoked the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm,[1] to assert that the traditions we associate with holidays are primarily indicative of our historical position. Only when they are no longer binding, no longer economically necessary — in other words, only once the world had sufficiently modernized — do any of these holidays actually suggest anything that could be consciously expressed as “traditional.” As McLemee put it:

Once upon a time — let’s call this “the premodern era” and not get too picky about dates — people lived in what we now think of as “traditional societies.” Imagine being in a village where few people are literate, everybody knows your name, and not many people leave. A place with tradition, and plenty of it, right? Well, yes and no. There are holidays and rituals and whatnot. As spring draws near, everybody thinks, “Time for the big party where we all eat and drink a lot and pretend for a few days not to notice each other humping like bunnies”….And yet people don’t say, “We do X because it is our tradition.” You do X because everybody else around here does it — and as far as you know, they always have. Not doing it would be weird, almost unimaginable.

But then, starting maybe 300 years ago, things got modern….Well before Queen Victoria planted her starchy skirt upon the throne, people were nostalgic for the old days. And so…they started inventing traditions from bits and pieces of the past. In the 19th century, for example, folks started singing “traditional Christmas carols” — even though, for a couple of hundred years, they had celebrated the holiday with pretty much the same hymns they sang in church the rest of the year. In short, if you say, “We do X because it’s traditional,” that is actually a pretty good sign that you are modern. It means you have enjoyed (and/or endured) a certain amount of progress. What you are really saying, in effect, is, “We ought to do X, even though we sort of don’t actually have to.”

To be fair to McLemee, this really wasn’t so much an argument against traditionalism as it was a snark about it; as he concluded: “We gather with family at Christmas or Hanukkah in order to recapture the toasty warmth of community and family. And because, well, we have to.” But there is an assumption underneath the snark, an assumption holding that the ability to meaningfully affirm things through “mere” traditional practices and materiality depends upon a “naïveté” which has been destroyed by the self-consciousness of modernity. Talk of “tradition” therefore presumably means little more than aspiring to some kind of “second naïveté,” to use Paul Ricoeur’s phrase,[2] one that covers up our constructive role in establishing rituals and observances in the first place. The point is that such aspirations are flawed and a little silly; acceptable in their limited place, perhaps, as situated resources that individuals inclined to nostalgia can make use of if they so choose, but problematic if anyone starts using them in a way that might actually involve shaping public options or personal desires.

While there are other varieties of the anti-traditionalist position, this is perhaps the most defensible one. It isn’t an outright rejection of the communitarian claims made on behalf of traditions, but it is a fundamental weakening of them, such as one may see in the work of Will Kymlicka.[3] He presents “culture” as a repository of stories, behaviors, schemes of judgment and valuation and such, all of which ought to be available for individuals to enter into or exit from according to how rewarding they find them. This leads him to speak of the importance of positive action to support various traditional communities, beliefs, and practices, such as providing for group-specific rights of various forms. That certainly isn’t an unfriendly position to traditionalism, as such, but it is still a weakening. It presents traditions as a tool for individuals to use or disregard, not as anything constitutive of individuals. The argument thus presumes moral reasoning to be, ultimately, a kind of individual calculation, pushing the whole issue in an explicitly economic direction.

Much, however, is elided in this view. What if the primary question pertaining to the value of tradition is how one conceives of practices, how one conceives of flourishing, and how one chooses among the former to achieve the latter, in the first place? This is a point strongly made by the philosopher Charles Taylor, who, in a debate with Kymlicka over the ability of schemes of individual rights to protect cultural traditions, argued straightforwardly for the primacy of tradition:

The liberal accords a culture value as the only common resources of its kind available for the group in question. It is the only available medium for its members to become aware of their options. If these same individuals could dispose of another medium, then the case for defending the culture would evaporate. For the people concerned, their way of life is a good worth preserving; indeed, it is something invaluable and irreplaceable, not just in the absence of an alternative, but even if alternatives are available. The difference comes out clearly in the issue of long-term survival. People who have lived in or near French Canada know the resonance of this goal of survivance…The goal that unborn people, say, my great-grandchildren, should speak Cree or French or Athabaskan, is not one that Kymlicka’s liberalism can endorse….The people of French-Canadian ancestry, now assimilated in New England, are doing just as well as any other segment of the U.S. population in leading their lives in the English-language medium they share with the present compatriots. But the loss from the point of view of survivance is clear.[4]

Traditions, perhaps particularly as instantiated in holidays, form a part of the “medium” (historical, linguistic, moral, and otherwise) through which we interact with and make choices about the beliefs and practices available in the world. To reject the idea that traditions contribute to this collective background, and to reject the idea that they contribute importantly enough to potentially warrant some level of both personal and civic obligation to them, is to grant too much weight to the supposedly revolutionizing idea that this medium is a “constructed” one.

Consider Hobsbawm’s argument again. To work, Hobsbawm’s argument had to assume that there was a privileged historical moment when beliefs and practices endured without a consciousness of change, and without interpretive responses to it. But that is a strange notion; it depends on a kind of materialist absolutism, wherein we assume that no “real” self-consciousness existed until the critical innovations and economic revolutions of “modernity” (meaning the eighteenth century, or thereabouts). But actually it is not as though holidays and traditions that occurred in the premodern world somehow existed without interpretation. The constructive identification of rituals and observances with particular ends has always been a part of their own evolution, and of their celebration.[5] The increased subjective awareness that attends our own rituals and observances does not mean that our appreciation of them is categorically different from what came before; we may well be inventing something when we celebrate holidays today, but whatever we come up with isn’t necessarily arbitrary. Our inventing may be better understood as kind of “adaptive remembering,” — and potentially every bit as morally valid as the innovations of a hundred or even a thousand years ago.

To be sure, increased pluralism makes us into interpreters and inventors of a significantly different sort from earlier centuries. But this difference is not necessarily a tradition-shattering realization of arbitrariness; rather, it is what Ricoeur was getting at with his idea of a “second naïveté,” which I mentioned earlier. As he wrote in The Symbolism of Evil:

In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short, it is by interpreting that we can hear again. Thus it is in hermeneutics that the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together.[6]

If modernity has meant anything, it has meant a change in our accounting of subjectivity. We can now think of ourselves as standing apart from our received “medium” of evaluation. And so the old naïveté, with its “immediacy,” won’t do any longer. But the result isn’t necessarily a radical change in how we orient ourselves toward traditions; it is a difference in the environment within which we do it. It’s the difference between someone who has only ever been immersed in a single musical tradition making distinctions between good and bad musical expressions, and someone who has been introduced to a plurality of musical traditions, now having to make distinctions with an understanding that the evaluative criteria provided by their own tradition itself can also be evaluated. So now we have to “wager” on interpretation; we have to use it self-consciously and therefore critically. But this does not warrant an encapsulating of all traditional claims as “subjective” and therefore incapable of playing any kind of normative or constitutive role in how we live our lives, much less how we mark the calendar; to do so would require a much wider, much more radical claim about the nature of our consciousness. When has interpretation ever not been involved in our orientation to the world?

Unfortunately, many defenders of tradition are either unaware of or refuse to take seriously the changes of history; their preference is to reify particular elements of a tradition into static performances or professions of belief, from which any deviation would be catastrophic. Charles Taylor struggled with this when he attempted to articulate a defense of traditionalist thinking while addressing controversies over cultural accommodation in Quebec (for my comments on the report submitted by Taylor and Gerard Bouchard, see here); Christopher Lasch also discussed this tendency, criticizing much communitarian argument as trafficking in lazy sociology, drenched in a nostalgia for exactly the kind of stable, traditional (and unreal) community which Hobsbawm’s argument implicitly relies upon.[7]

Lasch was by no means a complete defender of tradition, but his distinction between popular “memory” and sociological “custom” is important nonetheless. “Memory,” as he presents it, is that which active agents, working with and through (and, therefore, inevitably sometimes also against) their community contexts, enact and vivify (or revivify) through their collective choices. “Custom,” on the other hand, are actions in which the “judgment, choice, and free will” that made memory valuable is no longer necessary. Customs, in his sense, devolve “into patterns that repeat themselves in a predictable fashion.” Someone who is serious about tradition will not allow customary behaviors to get in the way of the responsible, interpretive action of “memory.”

Would such a serious person include my father-in-law, with his grumbling jokes about “Hallowthanksmas”? I wonder. Around Thanksgiving, one of my favorite books to read to our younger children is Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner.[8] It tells the story of Sarah Hale, an abolitionist, editor, and social reformer, who spent thirty years writing letters and publishing articles, trying to get the federal government to officially acknowledge (and thus hopefully resuscitate) Thanksgiving, a religious and cultural holiday which dated back to the early colonial days, but whose observance, by the mid-nineteenth century, was slowing dying out. She finally succeeded, and the book makes President Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving Day holiday out to be Sarah’s greatest triumph. What should we make of that? One could, of course, dismiss Hale as a sentimental busybody. But maybe it would be better to say that she was committed to helping her country engage in a little “creative remembering.” The fact that what she accomplished was, strictly speaking, a political invention doesn’t take anything away from the moral connections it makes possible for all Americans. In committing herself to a belief and practice, and interpretively responding to the reality of that those traditions as they existed in the decades leading up until the Civil War, she contributed to the maintenance of a normative factor in the lives of her fellow citizens, a factor that might well not have been there otherwise. This is not about whether you like Thanksgiving, or find it important to distinguish it from the dominant holidays immediately before and after it in our national calendar; this is about preserving a space for both a personal and civic recognition of what a tradition of giving thanks, however one chooses to interpret that, can mean. That’s not blindly following custom (though there may well be elements of such involved; there almost always are); that’s doing the kind of important thinking which holidays have always made possible, whether we were self-conscious about it or not.

Well, enough of that. Off to get the Chinese New Year decorations out of the box in the garage. Can’t be too early for that; it’s become so commercialized lately, don’t you know.


[1] On Hobsbawm’s arguments about national identity and traditions, see his essays “Inventing Tradition” and “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914,” in The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds. (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[2] Ricoeur discusses this concept in the final chapter of The Symbolism of Evil, Emerson Buchanan, trans. (Beacon Press, 1967).

[3] See Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford University Press, 1989) and Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2001).

[4] Taylor, “Can Liberalism Be Communitarian?” Critical Review, Spring 1994, 259–260.

[5] Adrian Hastings considers this dynamic, primarily by way of the constitutive role of language in shaping national traditions, in The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion, and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[6] Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, 351.

[7] See The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (W.W. Norton, 1991), 133–134, 139–143.

[8] Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Response Essays

Beyond Liberalism

“Our teacher simply commanded: ‘Stand up!’ and we put our pointe shoes on our bare feet and started the class,” she remembers. “At the end of the lesson the slippers were covered in blood. I don’t consider them to be relics, but I could never throw those pointes away. They are a very touching reminder of childhood — like my first essays and my first math exercise books, which are covered in scribbles.”

— Mariinsky ballet soloist Yekaterina Kondaurova[1]

If I am understanding him correctly, Russell Arben Fox is asking two questions: What are we doing when we practice a tradition? And what are we doing when we judge a tradition? I will try to give some sense of other possible answers to these questions, and also add a third: What are we doing when we sacrifice for a tradition?

“Tradition” is one of those words, like “conservatism” or “love,” which has too many meanings. The level of abstraction shifts vertiginously when we move from claims about “the tradition of jumping the broom” to “our marriage tradition,” for example; the tradition of Thanksgiving is not the same as one’s own Thanksgiving family traditions, and in neither case is the word being used quite the way it is used in the charmingly paradoxical phrase “the Socratic tradition.” I move pretty fluidly between different senses of the word, partly since much of what I will say applies across several levels or types of tradition and partly since I am attempting a series of provocations rather than an analysis or proof.

First, Fox is right to call out the bizarrely simplistic, ahistorical pictures of premodern society which claim that reflection on, challenge to, and innovation in tradition are purely modern and postmodern practices. Premodern people created new rituals, institutions, and corresponding traditions, and reflected on their permanence, value, and meanings. These traditions often arose in contrast to preexisting institutions and traditions. Take the rise of beguinage in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: Rather than taking the veil, pious laywomen called “beguines” lived together without religious superiors. They created a new vocation; they had followers, women who saw their way of life and sought to practice it. When we practice a tradition, we are not attempting an escape from history.

We are also not just repeating actions or pursuing individual goals. Brushing your teeth every day is not a tradition. While repetition and continuity across time is a key feature of tradition, a more central feature is connection to others. Traditions enmesh us — even entangle us.

But with whom? Part of the difficulty in discussing tradition is that the word appears to name an independent authority — “Do this because it’s traditional” — and yet defenses of tradition often collapse into defenses of some other authority to which the tradition is tied. Defenses of tradition thus become defenses of the church or the community, whose authority is considered great enough to trump individual understanding and desire in a way that tradition-as-such cannot. And since traditions can come from sources of wildly varying levels of authority, it’s easy to assume that the traditions themselves have no value outside their ability to connect us to and serve the goals of those authorities. Thus if we think we can find an alternative route to those goals, we can cast off any traditions which we find unintelligible or unpleasant, without losing anything important.

Fox hints at one reason this approach will not work in practice: Authorities may precede traditions (or they may not — I’d argue that some institutions, like journalism, gain their authority as various conflicting-yet-compelling traditions accrete around them), but they can’t substitute for traditions. Tradition gives us our personae, roles, stories. Tradition offers us models of how to submit to those authorities we recognize — parables rather than either rules or rulers.

We need tradition for this because so many of our authorities are abstractions, and no one really loves or follows an abstraction. Traditions, in which specific actions, gestures, symbols, and images accrete around an abstraction like “England,” or “Thanksgiving,” or “philosophy,” or “the black community,” give that abstraction a pointillist face and transform it into something almost like a beloved or hero. The more of these traditions we strip away, the more abstract and faceless the authority becomes, and the harder it is for us even to imagine how we might follow it. One of the most challenging cultural tasks we face now is to put flesh and costume back on traditions which have been stripped almost to the skeleton. This task involves both restoring lost traditions and creating new ones: figuring out which traditions “fit in” and embellish the portrait and which ones clash; which ones serve the beloved authority and which ones appear to serve it while actually repudiating it. (If you want to see passions unleashed on this subject, hit up an online discussion of contemporary Catholic hymns! But this conflict takes place on every level where tradition is invoked, from American holidays — Columbus Day or Juneteenth? — to marriage and gender roles.)

In order to accomplish this task of re-enfleshment, we need to be able to judge both existing traditions and attempted replacements. Paul W. Kahn points out in Putting Liberalism in Its Place that we’re always simultaneously an “I” and a “me.”[2] We can act and love and follow — and yet that acting, loving, following self can become a “me,” an object of self-reflection, whose choices and even loves can be questioned and criticized by the “I.” (He argues that this is a feature not of modernity but of language.) Defenders of tradition are very good at delineating how traditions and communities shape that “I,” giving us so much of our language and sense of selfhood that rejecting tradition-as-such would make us unable even to speak. But these defenders of tradition are better at telling us why judging tradition is so hard than they are at helping us do it when we have to. As Kahn puts it, “Recognizing that there is no subject without parents, for example, hardly tells us how we should view our parents.”

Here are three criteria which make sense to me when judging a tradition: Is it beautiful or productive of beauty? Does it help us love — love one another when we don’t want to, or love a rightful authority? Does it mitigate, honor, or make sublime the suffering and constraint inherent in our natures?

These three questions take us outside of the goals recognized by almost all liberal philosophy. Kahn argues that liberalism talks almost exclusively in terms of two pairs of twins: reason/discourse, and desire/choice. Beauty and meaning thus get dismissed as irrelevant, fluffy (what does it mean to have meaning, anyway?), or excuses for reactionaries. Kahn — somewhat unhappily, since he’s basically sympathetic to the liberal project of making the world rational and comfortable — points out that virtually no actual existing humans limit their goals to the liberal ones. Thus either men must be changed (since within liberalism there’s no reason to accept that any constraints are “inherent in our natures”) or goals must be added which require a philosophy beyond liberalism.

Suffering and helplessness are humiliating. In their raw form they are degrading and our bad instinct is to respond to those who suffer with shunning or contempt. Many traditions — from soldiers’ traditions to the veneration of saints’ bones, from apprenticeship traditions to marriage traditions — seek instead to honor certain forms of minor or major suffering. Sure, I’m getting yelled at by a crazy person with a cleaver, but I’m like Anthony Bourdain, or that kid in Ratatouille! Yes, things are pretty awful right now and I think I’m falling in love with someone else, but I got my images of marriage from Brief Encounter and my wedding vows made me promise myself for life, and I wouldn’t respect the kind of person I’d become if I left.

I can’t give you a list of criteria for judging which suffering needs honor and role models, and which suffering simply needs to be fought as hard as possible. But tradition does have the power to transform suffering into sacrifice: into something we accept because of whom we love and who we want to be.


[1] “Getting Into Character,” Galina Stolyarova, St. Petersburg Times, December 17, 2010.

[2] Paul W. Kahn, Putting Liberalism in Its Place. (Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 50–4.

Tradition Needs Preservation

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living — Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”.

All the past we leave behind;

We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O Pioneers! — Walt Whitman

It is a great pleasure to participate in this forum and to respond to some of the ideas in Russell Arben Fox’s essay. I have been a fan of his work since the early days of the Front Porch Republic, and I always look forward to reading what he posts both there and at his personal website, In Medias Res.

It seems that before we can think about the role that “tradition” plays in the modern world, we must have some sense of what we mean by the term. Unfortunately, tradition is a rather slippery term to define. Historian David Lowenthal, in his masterful book The Past is a Foreign Country, writes: “The word’s very meaning has changed: ‘tradition’ now refers less to how things have always been done (and therefore should be done) than to allegedly ancient traits that endow a people with corporate identity. And the ‘tradition’ nowadays invoked on behalf of earlier ways is seldom alive; more often it signals a sterile reluctance to change.”[1]

Lowenthal’s definition of “tradition” reminds me of Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction between “tradition” and “traditionalism.” Tradition, Pelikan wrote, “is the living faith of the dead.” Tradition lives in “conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.” On the other hand, traditionalism “supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”[2] I do not think that Fox is advocating some form of “traditionalism” here. He is clearly on the side of “tradition,” or what he calls “adaptive remembering.”

I do, however, wonder why Fox is so bothered by Eric Hobsbawm and the “invention of tradition” argument. Does it really matter whether traditions are products of modernity? Does turning to holiday celebrations or longstanding religious beliefs as a way of coping with modernity or social change make the role of tradition in people’s lives any less powerful?

Whether tradition is invented or not, it has, and always will, shape our lives. This is particularly the case in the United States. Though I am probably dabbling too much in Hobsbawmian analysis here for Fox’s tastes, it does seem that tradition plays such a powerful role in American society because the meaning of America is so tied to progress. The United States was the first nation to be born out of the Enlightenment. Tom Paine called upon American patriots to “begin the world anew.” Americans have always pursued self-betterment through education and career advancement. They have been willing to fight and die to keep this idea of progress—as often defined by liberty and freedom—alive.

The ongoing tension between progress and tradition is strongest in places like America. Even as Americans pursue self-betterment and individual pursuits, they also, paradoxically, long for passion, love, faith, ritual, and other kinds of prejudices that we associate with tradition. They search for roots as part of attempts to connect to particular pasts or places. They also cherish unlimited progress—both for themselves and for society—even as they prepare themselves for death. These tensions define the American experience. Tradition is a brake on progress. The way of improvement leads home.

Traditions come in many forms. Personal or interior traditions will always play an important part in people’s lives, but I am particularly interested, as a historian, in the civic traditions that help to define our lives together. This is the kind of collective memory described by historian Wilfred McClay: “communities and nation-states are constituted and sustained by such shared memories—by stories of foundation, conflict, and perseverance. The leap of imagination and faith, from the thinness and unreliability of our individual memory to the richness of collective memory, that is the leap of civilized life; and the discipline of collective memory is the task not only of the historian, but of every one of us.”[3]

The power of these traditions cannot be ignored. And Americans have a habit of clinging to them even when they are based on faulty memories. Let me offer an example.

In a 2005 essay in The American Scholar, historian Adam Goodheart described his courageous attempt to explore the history of the Chestertown Tea Party. Every May tourists arrive in the Chesapeake Bay town of Chestertown, Maryland to commemorate the action of the local Sons of Liberty who, in 1774, supposedly boarded a British brig and dumped boxes of East India Tea into the Chester River. I call Goodheart’s efforts “courageous” because he was attempting to bring the eye of a critical scholar to a cherished local tradition that draws thousands of visitors to Chestertown each year. After extensive research, Goodheart concluded that the Chestertown Tea Party never happened. He could not find a scrap of evidence to suggest that the yearly celebration was based on historical fact.

Tourists come to Chestertown each year, as Goodheart puts it, “with little more sense of history than a glimpse of tea crates and tricorn hats floating in the river.” For the locals, he adds, “it’s been simply an opportunity to do some hearty drinking and carousing, as well as perhaps make a bit of money…The true past slumbers through these festivities undisturbed.” Yet, whether the Chestertown Tea Party happened or not, the tradition of celebrating it is a part of the collective life of this town. If for whatever reason the Tea Party ceased to be celebrated, it would no doubt result in a deep sense of loss among the town residents. As a result, Goodheart concludes that the Tea Party has its own “innate authenticity” because it provides meaning and a sense of identity to the people of this community.[4]

Critical historians may call attention to the myth of the Chestertown Tea Party and may even have some influence on how the event is celebrated, but it is unlikely that the tradition will die anytime soon. As historian Gordon Wood has reminded us in a recent review in The New York Review of Books, tradition may be a “worthless sham, its credos fallacious, even perverse,” but it will always be essential to fostering “community, identity, and continuity.”[5]

How will citizens of the United States preserve their storied traditions? Lately, government funding—both at the national and state level—has been cut drastically for historical sites, museums, and other heritage programming. The assault on history, memory, and tradition in America has been severe. Some have said that this is a good thing. Government should not be in the business of preserving local and national traditions. I beg to differ. Traditions, as Fox notes, are constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of the people who invoke them. The preservation and reinterpretation of these traditions—whether they conform to the standards of critical historians or not—need support in order to survive. Do we will really want to trust the treasured traditions, stories, and markers of our collective or group identities to a capitalist market? While the grand stories of our national identity have a good chance of surviving under such privatization, the local stories that give meaning to everyday life in small places will likely all but disappear, creating nothing short of a cultural holocaust. We all have a responsibility to make sure that this does not happen.


[1] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 370.

[2] Pelikan, interview with U.S. News & World Report, July 26, 1989.

[3] McClay, “The Mystic Chords of Memory: Reclaiming American History,” The Heritage Foundation.

[4] Adam Goodheart, “Tea and Fantasy,” American Scholar, Autumn 2005.

[5] Gordon Wood, “,” The New York Review of Books, January 2011.

Tradition in the Age of Equality

The fundamental contradiction in my thinking about social life is bound up with the juxtaposition in me of two elements—an aristocratic interpretation of personality, freedom and creativeness, and a socialistic demand for the assertion of the dignity of every man, of even the most insignificant of men, and for a guarantee of his rights in life. This is the clash of a passionate love of the world above, of a love of the highest, with pity for this lower world, the world of suffering. […] In both cases I reject the foundations of the contemporary world.

— Nikolai Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom. [1]

Tradition does not have it easy in contemporary life. As Russell Arben Fox observes, the burden is on traditionalists to explain what condition their condition is in—not only to themselves, but to nontraditionalist others. Whether traditionalists choose to emphasize the durability or the flexibility of their beliefs and practices, they encounter the same problem. Often, from an outside perspective, traditions appear arbitrary or incoherent, and traditionalists may seem dishonest about the degree to which their inheritances are mere preferences. But what defines the current era is how traditions now commonly appear from the inside. Increasingly, our attention is drawn to the possibility that traditions cannot supply their own foundations in contemporary life. Today, what struggles most to survive within traditions is their authority itself.

Under the influence of German social and political thought, our reflex is to describe this problem in terms of modernization. During the modern era, the authority of the defining traditions of Western life lost its cultural command. To account for this sea change, we turn instinctively to the so-called “secularization thesis,” which attributes the collapse of traditional authority to the rise of secular society and the decline of Biblical faith. On a view adapted from theorists ranging from Hegel to Weber to Strauss, the fate of tradition is modernization, and the hallmark of modernization is secularization. According to the secularization thesis, the authority of tradition is inexorably destroyed by the retreat of religion from public and private life.

But the reality of “modern” life tells us otherwise. Traditions and their elements that do not depend on Biblical faith have largely fared as poorly as those that do—if not worse. Christian morality, and secular moralities with Christian roots, are mobilized continually against the lingering authority of traditional beliefs and practices rooted in mores with classical and aristocratic foundations. “Modernity,” as Friedrich Nietzsche recognized, is far more hostile to traditions that presume a vertical moral order of unequal nobility than to traditions propounding a horizontal moral order of equal dignity.

To understand the fate and future of traditions, we need an alternative to the secularization thesis—and a different conceptual point of departure than “modernity.” Perhaps strangely, we can find that alternative in the thought of not only Nietzsche but Alexis de Tocqueville. Both understood that the current time is defined much less by secularization than by the spread of equality—democratization. Each recognized that, in a democratic age, Biblical morality would be opposed only insofar as it retained its noble aspect—its commanding system of yeses and nos that authoritatively establish a moral hierarchy. But both thinkers also knew that Biblical morality contained the most profoundly equalizing moral code that had ever been seen on earth—inspiration for a humanistic democratic ethic that sees all persons as equally unique, autonomous, and valuable.

Circumscribing and defining this tremendous equalization, of course, was the authority of the ultimate inequality—that between a creator God and his human creatures. Tocqueville worried and Nietzsche declared that the creator God was “dead” to the democratic world. But where Tocqueville believed that Biblical faith radically and enduringly reconciled noble, hierarchical morality with the egalitarian morality of dignity, securing a foundation for authoritative order in a democratic age, Nietzsche avowed that the attempt to maintain such an order would slip swiftly into nihilism. For Nietzsche, egalitarian nihilism could only be defeated if Biblical faith was destroyed and a new, anti-Christian nobility founded.

In our current democratic age, the question for traditionalists is whether Tocqueville is right and Nietzsche is wrong. But the answer, as some of our most prominent traditions reveal, is not so simple as yes or no. Consider, with Fox, Christmas. In its common, popular form, Christmas is a holiday in which we, and a magical semi-saint, bestow gifts on the occasion of the birth of Jesus Christ (observed). The secularization thesis predicts that the Christian aspect of Christmas will drop out—and to be sure, traditionalist Christian critics of commercialism find themselves obliged to emphasize that Jesus is “the reason for the season.” But the flourishing we see today of plural Christmases—some deeply religious, some crassly commercial, and several somewhere in between—is far more consistent with what we can call the democratization thesis.

The same is true with marriage. Like Christmas, marriage is an institutionalized tradition. And like Christmas, marriage flourishes today in a variety of forms imbued with a range of meanings. But marriage is the more important test case for contemporary traditions because the practice of marriage which we recognize as “traditional marriage” is itself the product of an immensely complicated adjudication of traditions, moralities, and aspects of human personhood. Among them we can count the following: a natural capacity for monogamy; a cultural appreciation for the noble morality of “good matches” made over generations; a separate cultural appreciation for the moral dignity of love, and the democratic character of freely made romantic matches; and a Christian (and post-Christian) appreciation for the power of a spiritual union to transcend, fulfill, discipline, educate, and redeem all our natural capacities and our cultural particularities.

We rarely think—and almost never speak—of “traditional marriage” in this way. The difficult cultural labor hidden within its simplified practice and belief is not at all laid bare by our characterization of marriage as traditional. But the problem does not stop there. For the devoutly religious, there may well be a creedal answer to the question of precisely how the sometimes competing, sometimes complementary sub-traditions, moralities, and human aspects are adjudicated within their institution of marriage. Even such doctrinal believers, however, are perhaps likely to be ignorant of the particulars of that answer. Ignorance can be more serious among traditionalists without an official creed. “Traditional marriage” is an institution without a fully authoritative account of which moralities, which traditions, and which human characteristics command us to say no, by varying degrees, to which others.

This confusion is not the consequence of the secularization of marriage but of its democratization. In spite of it all, “traditional marriage” appears to be a highly durable and flexible institution. But it is the lot of traditions in democratic times to be pressured to become comprehensive—“all-inclusive,” in the parlance of our times. Rather than destroying a tradition, democratization tends to qualify it in such as a way as to make its experience open to anyone. That makes for some precarious cultural acrobatics: somehow a tradition must be made to overcome its own particularities without losing its status as a tradition.

Today there are two main obstacles to the full democratization of marriage: first, a conviction that God holds only certain unions to be holy; second, a conviction that the multigenerational natural family is a uniquely noble moral project for human beings. The second conviction is not inconsistent with Biblical religion, but it is inconsistent with the egalitarian morality of a democratic age. Viewing marriage as the fulfillment of God’s plan is far less repugnant to the democratic creed than viewing traditional marriage as a prestigiously challenging and powerful vehicle for the production of superior human beings.

It is essential to recall that marriage as practiced in more deeply religious times was not more democratic. The aristocratic aspect of marriage is, in some respects, deeply antagonistic to the Christian conception of personal love. But the aristocratic tradition of marriage was successfully integrated into the Christian one—leading to what we today consider “traditional marriage.” The current predicament of traditional marriage challenges Tocqueville’s belief that Christianity supplies democratic people with the resources they need to observe noble truths in an egalitarian setting. Christianity today struggles even to articulate a reason why the noble or aristocratic view of the natural family should not be dismissed forever. Democratic life already makes the pursuit of that noble ideal a costly, lonely, and risky business. Why, at a time when religions and creeds themselves are being relentlessly democratized, would a Christian denomination add to its burdens the responsibility of defending a moral view that has never fit neatly within its dogma?

Traditions cannot be thought of except in relation to institutions. As far as our current struggle is concerned, what is true of marriage is true of any cultural institution that carries traditions that reach back behind the democratic age for at least some of their foundations. Unable to provide their own foundations, traditions in a democratic age are likely to fall back upon the authority of the state—the only institution that can officialize the openness of traditions to all. The decision of the California Supreme Court in re Marriage Cases and the plurality opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey testify to that. In the absence of any other commanding creedal institutions, any state functioning in this way controls culture in the manner recommended by Hobbes.

If our democratic age cannot abide such a closed system, the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speak—with official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private. What Tocqueville calls the “constant agitation” of democratic life will deepen considerably if unofficial culture organizes itself around experiences of unequal power and status that are prohibited in the official culture. At any rate, a government that cannot remain solvent and enforce the rule of law is probably unable to bear the mantle of Hobbesian cultural authority. The authority of current traditions may prove more resilient, and more resistant to full democratization, than many traditionalists seem to fear.


[1] Thanks to Matt Frost for bringing to my attention this passage in Nikolai Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944, p. 9.

The Conversation

Response to Tushnet: Traditions, Same-Sex Marriage, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Eve Tushnet’s response to my argument about traditions and traditionalism makes wonderful reading. She is especially acute about one of the primary implications of my argument. Once one rebuts the attempt to characterize traditions as arbitrary things that, to use her term “entangle” us, then one is presumably obliged to take the next step: to deal with that entanglement, to judge it, and to ask oneself exactly how, and in what ways, one ought to sacrifice something—a choice, a preference, a resource—on its behalf.

She opens up this implication by way of an observation by Paul Kahn, who wrote that “Recognizing that there is no subject without parents, for example, hardly tells us how we should view our parents.” Charles Taylor once made a similar observation about what he saw as the frequent confusion between “ontological issues” and “advocacy issues” in the liberal-communitarian debate. Even if we admit the entanglement of our subjectivity in the meaning-construction of someone or something else (our parents, the English language, the holidays on our calendar, etc.), this does not, in itself, tell us how to deal with our parents, our language, or our holiday traditions. As Taylor put it, “Taking an ontological position does not amount to advocating something,” though at the same time “the ontological does help to define the options which it is meaningful to support by advocacy.”[1]

It is here that we see the effort to clarify our thinking on traditions most often challenged by some libertarians or individualists. While many—perhaps most—of this disposition may see no reason to dispute the way their subjectivity is enmeshed in, perhaps even constituted by, histories, cultures, and traditions, more than a few are leery of conceding it. Such an allowance may, and often does, entail policy commitments. Hence libertarians’ not infrequent reliance upon claims like those of Hobsbawm, asserting that tradition is always to a significant degree arbitrary, because it is always in flux.

In my essay, I criticized the view that what we are enmeshed in is little more than a “constructed” reification of some historical moment, that its claims are arbitrary, and that we therefore can (and, it is usually implied, should) escape them. In rejecting that “bizarrely simplistic, ahistorical” argument, as Tushnet rightly puts it, I am unavoidably placing a follow-up question before us: how should we think about, and respond to, these larger things?

This follow-up will inevitably take us, as Tushnet’s response is titled, “beyond liberalism.” Liberal culturalists such as Will Kymlicka, as I noted, would almost certainly dissent from this: as they view traditions as resources that individuals may embrace or reject, they would likely argue that such follow-up questions can (and, again, should) be answered privately, without any shaping or obliging that extends beyond individual preference. But this is not the case, since the context of this follow-up concern—how to deal with the traditions we are entangled in—requires us to think about matters that cannot be fully articulated without reference to a community of others both living and dead. Tushnet suggests that the matters entwined in the context of our responses to such traditions are things like beauty, love, honor, and suffering; I could add to that list pleasure, solidarity, and a sense of place and wholeness. Any and all of those potentially draw upon such a huge variety of media and measures that an authority of something or someone beyond one’s own interest has to come into play; the act of interpretation practically demands it.

Tushnet thoughtfully presents tradition as that which gives substance to the often abstract authorities on whom we usually rely as we make judgments about our culture, history, parentage, or calendar. I would quibble with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and gain authority thereby; it seems to me, rather, that some activities (such as certain religious rituals) are held as authoritative from their origin or from some stage in their process of origination (or transformation), and become something traditional to be passed down accordingly. Mostly though, her point about authority is well taken. It is the idea of authority, after all, which makes sense of the idea of obligation, shaping, and adherence. So, to move the discussion from the philosophical to the political, what might be authoritative understandings of things we love, honor, or wish to be in solidarity with, which traditions can, though associating us with others, “put flesh and costume” (to quote Tushnet again) upon?

An easy one to start with, since I am writing this on the day itself: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In my essay, I made mention of the work of Sarah Hale, a 19th-century feminist who cajoled and corresponded with politicians, business leaders, and women’s groups for years to get the national government to officially declare Thanksgiving Day a holiday, with all the legal and economic ramifications such a declaration inevitably had. Similarly, this January 17th was the 25th anniversary of the first public honoring of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, the result of years of activism by labor unions, civil rights groups, and Democratic politicians, who clearly understood pushing the holiday as a way to continue to distinguish their record during the civil rights movement from that of the Republicans.

I remember the arguments both for and against the holiday which abounded during my middle and high school years in mostly white, mostly conservative communities in the American west; friends of mine from white communities in the South have similar recollections. Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. would challenge the solitary honor which George Washington had previously enjoyed in the federal calendar; it would oblige states to introduce unpopular concepts into elementary school curricula; it would require contorted balancing acts to satisfy various constituencies (creating a “Civil Rights Day” or the short-lived “Lee-Jackson-King Day” were just two ways different states sought to accommodate themselves to the national government’s decision). Holidays, of course, are not generally occasions of high sacrifice, but still, on the level of school budgets, government payrolls, work schedules, and more, significant interpretation and adjustment is necessary. Taking the legacy, ideals, and impact of a single man, and using them to engage in an act of partisan construction, so as to force into the civic routine of the nation a set of traditions, however plebeian they may be, oriented around an important national memory of protest and struggle, was anything but an easy, individually obvious, static operation; it was, and still remains, a dynamic, collective, contentious act—as most any holiday should be. But the result is that a reference point for remembrance in now part of our calendar, and we—or at least, those in sympathy with the aim of that remembrance—are empowered thereby.

A harder one now: same-sex marriage. Here the arguments on both sides are much more fraught, but their forms do not appear to me to be much different. Of course, in the debate over extending formal legal recognition to the marriages of gays and lesbians, generally only one side uses arguments from tradition. But those who make these arguments follow a similar pattern. First, that an authoritative understanding of the purposes of marriage has emerged through the many diverse marriage practices which have been recognized throughout the history of Western civilization, one that was originally grounded upon a Judeo-Christian understanding sexual morality and the relations between the sexes, but which has also been shaped and interpreted in light of social and economic imperatives over centuries. Second, that this contested, constructed definition nonetheless reflects a naturally evident and socially useful distinction between males and females when living in society and/or engaged in procreation. Finally, that as this distinction has been codified into various traditional practices and assumptions, the recognition of the rights and aspirations of gay and lesbian individuals has presented them with a challenge: how much can the traditional rules that govern our civic life regarding marriage be changed to accommodate new understandings about sexual morality, especially since much past interpretation and elaboration of marriage traditions in connection with procreation and property have been already undone by changes in gender roles, notions of divorce, and so forth?

One “conservative” answer has been to describe marriage traditions as essentially eternal, absolute, and static; that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage would be a change so great as to render completely pointless all the moral meaning and guidance they once provided to people attempting the flesh out the abstraction that the marriage relationship makes possible. Hence, same-sex marriage is simply incoherent.

That answer fails to recognize the interpretive, constructive, and subjective history at work in the authority behind any tradition; it is weak, because it leaves itself open to the Hobsbawmian claim that since something isn’t eternal, it must not be too meaningful either. The harder, but necessary, argument for those whose religious beliefs lead them to oppose same-sex marriage, is to recognize that the meaning of a tradition cannot be contained solely in its repetitive, customary performance; it has to be revivified through constant acts of judgment that take into consideration the lives actually lived by its practitioners. There is no good reason to believe that radically re-made traditions regarding how one can make substantive the abstract, collective, even “illiberal” matters at the heart of marriage may not emerge, and do so in continuity with older understandings of those same traditions. Of course, that emergence will almost certainly be divisive, and will likely be contested; arguably, this very process has been underway in the United States for multiple decades now.[2] And the end result is anything but guaranteed. But those who imagine traditions could ever be otherwise—from either point of view—are fooling themselves, I think.


[1] Taylor, “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 161.

[2] This is essentially the broad argument—one about the emergence of two very distinct expressions of marriage and family life—made in Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Tradition and the Problem of Pride

In his rejoinder to Eve, Russell dwells upon, but also wants to point beyond, the liberal-communitarian debate. For a generation, that debate has threatened to consume the resources of social and political thought in the American academy. But in important ways, it is a sterile debate. On its terms, even the path beyond the debate appears to involve the sort of epistemological modesty and ecumenical capitulation that casts doubt on the whole enterprise of disciplined philosophical conversation. When viewing the world—not least tradition—through the lens of liberalism versus communitarianism, one casts about in vain for the resources necessary either to resolve it or discard it. Fruitful progress seems to require a lucky hit.

Consider the disagreement between Russell and Eve on the question of origins:

I would quibble [says Russell] with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and gain authority thereby; it seems to me, rather, that some activities (such as certain religious rituals) are held as authoritative from their origin or from some stage in their process of origination (or transformation), and become something traditional to be passed down accordingly.

Eve proposes that community can have an immanent foundation; Russell rejects this. In my response to Russell, I made the argument that tradition, at least in a democratic age, cannot supply its own foundations. As formulated, this is a more modest version of what Hobbes argued. As Joshua Mitchell has shown, Hobbes took the anti-Aristotelian position that community “is a unity (made possible by the one) of the many strangers, who are not by disposition prone to form a community together.”[1] The community is only possible under the Sovereign. Strikingly, Hobbes claims that “human beings are not by nature social, they are by nature prideful, and this is a massive obstacle to community which can be overcome only by the equality of all under the one. The question of the ontological preeminence of the community or the individual,” Mitchell concludes, “is a nonissue for Hobbes. The problem of pride, in a word, does not map onto the contemporary liberal-communitarian debate!”

This is more than a merely academic point. It presses, in fact, on the very pulse of our contemporary unease. (David Brooks is on the verge of publishing a sweeping summation of American life entitled The Social Animal.) Today’s educated general audience is, I think, deeply but rather incoherently concerned about the problem of pride. Picking up Mitchell where he left off:

When the progenitive Protestant vision (which insisted upon the theological notion of the equality of the all under the one) ebbs, then perhaps it begins to make sense to speak of the frailty and instability of a community of strangers. But not until then. What happens hypothetically without a sovereign in Hobbes’s commonwealth happens empirically in a Reformation culture without Christ the sovereign: all strangers lose their basis for unity. The community of strangers now become—mere strangers. This is a profound difficulty, to be sure, and it is at present impelling more and more people to search for a less scandalous basis of unity than through a Sovereign, to search for ways in which they may have something in common (by affirming their membership, say, in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or national community).

That was written in the early ’90s; nowadays, the scandal of the Sovereign is wearing off. Parochial identities provide poetic resources for the art of living; the federal sovereign provides, it is perhaps not too soon to say, the only basis for belief in an authoritative unity. Unlike Hobbes’s sovereign, ours does not officially set religious doctrine. Yet perhaps it has already begun to do so unofficially. There is some wiggle room in the particulars of that doctrine, but a sense of its parameters can be quickly gleaned from Andrew Sullivan, whose Catholic Oakeshottianism is a subtly clever (but dangerously unstable) effort to surmount the problem described by Mitchell. Reacting to my remarks on plural practices and conceptions of marriage, Sullivan asks:

How do we do manage to include all these experiences as part of the same core institution? James has an expression that captures my view:

If our democratic age cannot abide such a closed system [of strictly traditional marriage], the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speak—with official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private.

This is the argument in the closing chapter of Virtually Normal—and also explains why I put that “virtually” in the title. Civil equality need not mean an erasure of cultural or religious difference. That is why, as a longtime activist for marriage equality for gays, I also strongly support and respect much more traditional marriages. And any civil attempt to delegitimize the truly traditional should be fought, in my view, by the marriage equality movement.

Modernity requires living with cultural contradictions. And the worst response to modernity is to try and stamp those contradictions out, rather than finding ways to live them, with mutual respect, and civility.

The devil is in those brackets. The closed system to which I referred is not “strictly traditional marriage” but the authority of our federal sovereign, as it is, to take only one example, forced to supply an official definition of marriage that goes far beyond the strictly traditional. Whereas this move is entirely acceptable in a Hobbesian commonwealth—indeed, Hobbes’s whole point is that it is just this move that defines true sovereignty and the only possible authority in a post-Reformation world—it is, by Tocqueville’s lights, wholly incompatible with political liberty in a democratic age. I supposed in my essay that, for the foreseeable future, Americans are still of the sort who cannot withstand the complete surrender of their cultural prerogatives to the sovereign—even though, in an age of equality, the state (as my libertarian friends would call it) is the only institution capable of satisfying the democratic demand for full—that is, universal—equality.

But why would this be so? I would like to suggest, following Hobbes and Mitchell, that the answer is brief but nettlesome: pride.

[1] This and foregoing from Mitchell, Not By Reason Alone. Chicago: Chicago University Press, p. 146.

Response to Fea: Preserving Communities and Traditions

I appreciate very much the thoughtful response presented by John Fea to my essay. As a historian, Fea is rightly concerned primarily with the civic traditions “that help to define our lives together.” Given this focus, I fully agree with his distinction between “tradition”—the conscious, adaptive work of preserving and shaping the particular knowledge and practices of the past—and “traditionalism.”

Of course, I use the latter term somewhat differently than he does, as I think we need a word to capture the disposition some feel (would that it more did!) toward identifying and honoring traditions. Certainly that is the case with our family, and our affection for bringing holidays into our yearly calendar. (Coming up soon: Candlemas/Groundhog Day!) But the point still holds, whether we speak of traditionalism or, as I put it in my lead essay, Christopher Lasch’s “custom”: either way, we should be wary of a ritualistic acknowledgment or action from which all active remembering has been drained away and replaced with a static genuflection towards the past. This attitude denies the democratic input of the people actually living within traditions and will likely cause people to flee them as boring or demeaning, rather than finding them a source of enrichment.

Do Americans have a particular problem with making that distinction? Perhaps. Fea’s comments suggest such, and by so doing I think they answer his question to me: “Why [is] Fox…so bothered by Eric Hobsbawm and the ‘invention of tradition’ argument[?] Does it really matter whether traditions are products of modernity?” It matters, I think, particularly in a country so smitten with the idea of itself as something new, something exceptional. The (false) belief that traditions are “merely” modern (re)constructions makes it easy for Americans (and really, most moderns as well) to assume that traditions are dead things that only appear to guide us or offer us meaning; an artificial life has been arbitrarily pumped into them by self-interested parties. (As, for example, how some have argued that “Christmas” was essentially invented by a collusion between greedy shopkeepers and a nervous clergy. But they misunderstand the interpretive work their evidence represents.[1]) It is important to challenge Hobsbawm’s idea, with its presumption of a non-subjective, non-interpretive past. Only by so doing can people reflect with respect on their own constant reliance upon and adjustment of the traditions they make use of.

Fea is also rightly worried, I think, about the civic spaces and remnants that ground and give specificity to our traditions—parks, museums, monuments, holidays, parades, heritage education, and all the rest. In a world of private property and profit-minded commerce, he asks whether “we will really want to trust the treasured traditions, stories, and markers of our collective or group identities to a capitalist market?” My own anti-capitalist inclinations tempt me to reply with a resounding “No!” but I think a more tentative “no” is perhaps more helpful. The information sharing that markets make possible is not to be discounted; more than a few historical sites and civic rituals have been helped to flourish by seeking private sponsors and commercial investment. Some traditions (Christmas not least among them) have, despite the many frustrating downsides of commercialism, creatively adapted to and grown through the forces of the market. But this does not deny the point which Fea wisely makes: that attempts to turn to the market and purely private economic transactions will be extremely hard on “the local stories that give meaning to everyday life in small places”—the lure to leverage one’s financial commitment towards those traditions likely to give greater “return” (whether financial profit, mass media exposure, or just numbers of those involved) will be too great for most to resist. The result will be that tiny outposts of memory—like Fea’s own delightful and moving story about the “Chestertown Tea Party”—will suffer even more. Hence it is regional and local sources of traditional knowledge and practices which are most threatened today, and the ones that those inclined towards honoring traditions ought to vigorously seek to establish more deeply, formally, and solvently, in the civic order.


[1] See Stephen Nissbaum, The Battle for Christmas (Vintage, 1997).

Response to Poulos: On the Authority of Tradition

James Poulos’s wonderfully rich response (and his second one too!) in some ways seem to anticipate and take issue with my reply to John Fea, what with my talk about the “democratic input of the people” and the “civic order.” Poulos’s thoughtful argument is that what truly threatens traditions is not the tendency of moderns to see themselves as somehow having comprehended the past and therefore having escaped from the “naïve” believing work of the past. He blames instead modernity’s ideological content, namely our authority-denying ideal of equality. This is a perhaps somewhat inevitable consequence of the creation of a civic order that respects the democratic individual. Poulos’s use of both Tocqueville and Nietzsche in exploring this claim only raises the stakes even higher: if equality, and the resulting doubting of authority, is the true cause of tradition’s decline in the modern world, then perhaps the roots of this problem are as old as Christianity itself.

The implication at the heart of Poulos’s question is thus a deeply challenging one: perhaps “tradition,” far from being an interpretive and participatory creation, one which arises via the active subjectivity and involvement of all who are touched by and enlisted into a given significant belief or practice, is actually fundamentally aristocratic. Perhaps tradition is an authority that is to be responded to…and that has been on the defensive ever since the message of the radical equality of all human beings began its slow, confusing, sometimes contradictory, but ultimately always liberating work. Poulos’s comments about marriage fit this perspective quite well; it isn’t difficult to read the gradual evolutions and adaptations of the ideal of heterosexual monogamy over the centuries as a long, haphazard retreat, with the authoritative principle itself always casting about for one justification or another, as the aristocratic ethos it once presumed weakened before the slow rise of gender and economic egalitarianism.

This is an abstract and theoretical argument, but it has immediately relevant applications, as Andrew Sullivan’s engagement makes clear. If Poulos is right, and the real issue is the question of authority (a question, really, about who or what, if anything, a democratically inclined people will fully accept as sovereign) then the compromise he gestures at—“the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speak, with official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private”—might be the only way to keep the aristocratic principle arguably contained within “traditional marriage” alive. Save marriage-as-an-acceptance-of-authority by separating marriage from the increasingly authority-absent civic order entirely! It’s a compelling compromise, and libertarians will love it. But I would prefer to see if formalizable, meaningful traditions might not emerge as the legal, social, and religious particulars of marriage continue to be hashed out through the breadth of our democracy, without either side calling for a full retreat or complete victory. That sounds almost hopeful, I realize, and I suppose it is. If I am hopeful about tradition’s continuing relevance to how we think about things like marriage, it is because I’m not sure I can agree with Poulos’s account of tradition’s authority as necessarily involving a degree of aristocratic acceptance.

Poulos, is his second response, notes my dissent from one of Tushnet’s points. I wrote:

I would quibble with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and gain authority thereby; it seems to me, rather, that some activities (such as certain religious rituals) are held as authoritative from their origin or from some stage in their process of origination (or transformation), and become something traditional to be passed down accordingly.

and he concludes: “Eve proposes that community can have an immanent foundation; Russell rejects this.

Now perhaps there is simply some confusion here in how certain philosophical or theological terms are being used, but I’m not sure how Poulos comes to this conclusion. He may well be understanding me correctly, but if so, I’m not certain that can be discerned from my disagreement with Eve Tushnet above. She suggested that certain institutionalized practices, through their repeated performance, might themselves become authoritative simply through a process of accretion. I find this unlikely. Now, if Poulos is taking Tushnet to mean that a community of practice (her specific example was journalists going about their work) have within them a source of teleological or moral meaning which will be immanent solely to the performance of the work involved, then yes, I do reject that idea. (Though I do not think that is what Tushnet was talking about; I read her instead as stating that some institutionalized practices precede any authority entirely, and gain authority simply through repeated performance, and I disagree with that for the same reason I agree with her about brushing your teeth: just because you may always brush your teeth in a certain way doesn’t make it a “tradition,” because there’s nothing social or authoritative involved, binding you or anyone else together.)

What is the relationship between authority, community, and tradition? I hold that, at some point through the history of a particular belief or practice, some one or some thing emerges or stands revealed in connection with it which those who hold to the belief or practice subjectively experience a sense of authority for. Obviously, this could occur at the origin of the belief or practice: Moses coming down from Sinai, speaking in the name of God. On the other hand, it could be a revelation that comes almost accidentally, one piece at a time. But whatever the case, there is not, I think, some foundational moment where authority becomes obviously immanent to all subsequent performance of the beliefs and practices; the authority comes through and in its subjective recognition by those who come together as a community around it. That is the interpretive, revelatory work of traditions: a situating of the self in regards to something which comes along with a community of belief or practice. This subjective realization may take the form of acknowledging an aristocratic ideal being so communicated—indeed, I would agree with Poulos enough to say that such might well often be the case—but it is not as though that sense of authority was immanent to the tradition the very first time it was ever enacted.

Now in disagreeing with Poulos here, I do not mean to reduce all traditions to an identical intellectual and experiential process. There is surely an immense historical variety in how these processes play out. The Puritan communities of 17th-century Massachusetts and the classical Confucian communities of Han dynasty China, for example, were both, in their own ways, profoundly traditional. Both had traditions that bound those communities together; in each, they were held as highly authoritative. But the experiential realization of that tradition and authority was quite different. For Puritans, it was a process of recognizing a spiritual authority in congregational leaders, through accepting a covenant of grace that the Puritans believed jointly set them apart from other Christians. This was a highly unequal context—Puritan town meetings were not modern democracies—yet it still depended upon a uniform, participatory acceptance of that singular source of authority by all in the community. For Confucians, it was a process of adhering to a set of ritual instructions and performances, ones believed to have been handed down from the ancient Zhou, the performance of which could align human beings with the Dao of nature and heaven. There was also a great of inequality in these communities—and yet, again, the actual binding authority of the rites was identified with the moralistic relationships and connections which the enacting the diverse roles and responsibilities specified by the rites (father, husband, teacher, servant, wife, son, minister, friend, etc.) instantiated. In neither case can one discern assumed, automatic, aristocratic authoritative model existing apart from a subjective, participatory contribution.[1]

Traditions should be preserved. Do we need to worry about preserving the authority of traditions, and perhaps separating them out from a democratic, anti-authoritarian civic order in order to do so? While I find Poulos’s speculations about the authority of traditions challenging, I am not persuaded that modernity’s loss of an aristocratic, inegalitarian ethos (which hasn’t been, it should be noted, a total loss) renders traditions incapable of doing their shaping, modeling, and binding work. The experience of authority through communities and traditions is not so dependent as he implies, I think, upon getting and keeping the foundations right.

Who Put the Tradition in “Traditional Marriage”?

Why is marriage the only area of contemporary politics in which tradition is used explicitly as a justification?

Both Russell Arben Fox and James Poulos used marriage to exemplify their views of tradition, and it’s the only public-policy question I can think of in which one side has actually accepted the label “traditional.” Considering why this has happened may illuminate weaknesses in both contemporary marriage and contemporary traditionalism. We can ask both “why is ‘tradition’ cited as a justification for defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman?” and “why are other political issues not explicitly defended on traditionalist grounds?”

Two things have happened to contemporary marriage which all but compel traditionalist rhetoric in a non-traditionalist culture. First, one of marriage’s core purposes has been suppressed in public discourse. Marriage developed in major part to regulate sex between men and women—to regulate it not solely within marriage but before marriage. The idea that marriage as an institution should regulate whether the unmarried have sex used to be obvious. It’s not that everyone actually abstained, as the bawdy songs show! But the cultural expectation was that premarital chastity could be demanded, defended, held up as social necessity and religious virtue, and its opposite punished (as in the sadder bawdy songs) or wryly rejected (as in the funnier ones).

Ten minutes’ conversation with people in their teens or twenties, anywhere from Main Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, will make clear that the exact opposite of this perspective is now as obvious as the older one used to be. Premarital sex is not only practiced but assumed, and often valorized. (You should live together before marriage; don’t be stupid!)

We can debate whether this deregulation has been good for the elite, for the underclass, for men, for women, for children, etc., but I’m not here to ask who lost the sexual revolution. I’m pointing out that when a core purpose of a tradition is still acknowledged in public debate, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it serves the core purpose. This approach to tradition is inadequate, for reasons I tried to draw out in my first post, but it’s an obvious rhetorical approach in a pluralist society.

Secondly, the competing authorities that used to combine to make marriage compelling have now been discredited or pitted against one another. Church and state once agreed here, even when they fought elsewhere. Yet the very idea of something simultaneously sacred and legal is now suspect—almost unintelligible, which is one reason so many people I talk to think that the optimal solution to the gay-marriage debate would be for the government to “get out of marriage,” but they think that just isn’t practical.

When a tradition is justified by its support from a beloved authority, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it comes from and flows back toward the authority.

The honor and beauty that accumulated around marriage over millennia of liturgy, folk culture, and pain and grace still attract us; yet the necessities, the suffering that marriage sometimes could transform into sacrifice, are often no longer intelligible. So we fall back on a language which is all assumption and allusion. The only word we have left for marriage is “traditional.”

I’m not entirely sure of my analysis on what’s happened with marriage to make it the arena for explicit defenses of tradition-as-such, and I’d be interested in responses there. (I also think that a supporter of gay marriage could agree with literally everything I’ve argued in this post, although I think my points should make him reconsider the project of transforming marriage into a gender-neutral institution.) So my questions are these: What am I missing in this account of why tradition is only explicitly invoked in this one policy debate? Where else do “trads” think it should be invoked, and why? (John Fea gave one example, but I would like something more hot-blooded!) What, if anything, can or should be done to restore “tradition” as a justification in political rhetoric?

Tradition’s Comedies of Error

Both Russell Arben Fox and James Poulos have mentioned my belief that traditions can accrue around institutions or vocations and thereby, in a sense, create those vocations and give them an authority they previously lacked. Meanwhile John Fea notes that communal, love-enhancing, and joyful traditions can be based in historical inaccuracy. So here’s why I reject the misunderstanding that traditions are only as valuable as their origins.

A tradition can begin in all kinds of ways: as a joke, as a commercial ploy, as a crime. And yet I still return to judging traditions based on the criteria I set out in my first post: “Is it beautiful or productive of beauty? Does it help us love—love one another when we don’t want to, or love a rightful authority? Does it mitigate, honor, or make sublime the suffering and constraint inherent in our natures?”

And humans are weird enough, and dedicated enough to what Harold Bloom calls “strong misreading,” that jokes and ads and crimes can eventually end up doing all of those things. At the pregnancy care center where I volunteer, when we give little girls Santa dresses for Christmas we are not saying anything about Coca-Cola. We just want little girls to look lovely and feel cherished.

As for journalism, one reason I find it so fascinating is that the roles, images, and traditions which accreted around it are intensely conflicting! On the one hand you have a noir tabloid editor, Edward G. Robinson in the sublime Five-Star Final, obsessively washing his hands as he spreads scandal: the editor as bad conscience. On the other hand you have All the President’s Men: Woodward and Bernstein scheming and charming their way to exposure of government corruption. Exposure as self-expressive vocation, in the latter case; exposure as self-lacerating cruelty, in the former. A friend of mine recently noted that he’d never thought about how awful it must be to have been one of the real people involved in the New York Post’s famous, and terrific, headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” That was some mother’s child. Journalism exploits both our love of cleanness and our love of dirt. Truth is at the core of its identity conflict, whether facts are insouciantly disregarded (“Journalism in Tennessee,” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) or studiously pored over (“Follow the money”). Journalism gained its authority—so much so that people now sometimes talk as if journalists are a special category, with more First Amendment rights than the rest of us!—from its glamour. And it gained its glamour from its radically conflicting imagery. How can we reconcile the image of journalism in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the one in Shattered Glass? We can’t, not really—and it’s both of these images which lend the Fourth Estate its enduring cultural power. So I don’t believe that “repeated performance” lends journalism its tradition-based authority, as Russell Arben Fox reasonably guesses; I do believe that repeated, conflicting, and fascinating awesomeness created that authority, thus the expressions of its traditions preceded the authority.

Further Response to Tushnet: Who Talks About Tradition?

Eve Tushnet asks a truly fascinating question in one of her latest responses: “Why is marriage the only area of contemporary politics in which tradition is used explicitly as a justification?” The question is fascinating even though the assumption that lies behind it—namely, that outside the current argument over same-sex and traditional marriage, no one is making use of tradition in public debates—isn’t, in fact, true, as she herself qualifies towards the the end of that same post. John Fea gave an example of the members of the community of Chesterton organizing to preserve the tradition of a local tea party commemoration there, and I could add two or three examples from Wichita, Kansas, where I live, as well.

For example, our local College Hill neighborhood has for years put together an enormous Halloween carnival. “Trick or Treat Street” draws over 4,000 participants from all around the city (including my family and me). The local police used to provide traffic direction, but as the event grew in size, Wichita Police (which, like every government body these days, has had to look to cut costs) said they couldn’t afford to pay all the overtime for the needed officers. The call went up around the neighborhood, and a fund was set up to cover the costs. Some grumbled, not wanting to pay, but they ultimately quieted their complaints. What argument shut them up? “Tradition!”

This example, like Fea’s, speaks to a point he made: that it is the “local stories that give meaning to everyday life in small places.” These are what we must be most worried about. Still, Tushnet is surely correct that if we restrict ourselves to thinking about “hot-blooded” policy debates (as she put it), the paucity of references to tradition is striking. For instance, why have invocations of “tradition” not played a role in the argument over abortion, with all the rituals and practices of couples meeting, conceiving a child, and welcoming that baby into the world? And we needed limit ourselves to the right side of our usual political spectrum: why haven’t liberal egalitarians and leftists defended unions, the “living wage,” and for the matter Social Security, as essential tools and structures that enabled families to sustain themselves on a single income and develop a secure way of living over the decades?

My instinct would be to turn to Polous’s explanation of tradition’s decline, but with an important twist. Yes, the notion of equality has rendered “authority” a complicated topic at best, when it hasn’t dismissed it entirely. But that wouldn’t explain why, in regards to marriage, the rhetoric of tradition (and its authority) is still persuasive to many. Critics of traditional marriage, or even just those unpersuaded by criticisms of same-sex marriage, not infrequently suppose that that rhetoric is a sham, a way to hide a general homophobia. But this isn’t the case, or at least isn’t always, I think. Perhaps the words “traditional marriage” still have some force in public debates because marriage is the one social institution that has not been fully equalized—or better, “mobilized.”

My reference here is to Michael Walzer’s classic essay “The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism.” He talks about how difficult it is to articulate a communitarian position in the face of what he labels the “Four Mobilities” of modernity: geographic (we move around, chasing jobs, through a mostly homogenized and legally vouchsafed public realm), social (we feel little obligation to the economic or cultural world of our parents or peers, and in fact find the ability to advance along or create one’s own path as something to be admired), marital (the divorce revolution, made possible in part by the sexual revolution which preceded it, itself having been made possible by the Pill), and political (the consequences of democracy and technology have opened up all sorts of vistas of information, making it easy for us to change our minds and allegiances). I would suggest that geographic mobility is now essentially open to all (assuming the resources enabling one to participate in our national and international meritocracies); the same for social, and for political. But for marital mobility … that is not experienced equally. It mostly is, but not entirely. And the reason is obvious: we do not have a state that takes full responsibility for raising children (much less their conception and gestation—shades of Brave New World!), and that means the union of heterosexuals can, potentially, have … entanglements. We know this; we cannot wish it away, and despite all the trends and postures taken by some, most of the human race will probably continue to not want to wish it away. Hence, far more than questions about family planning and childbirth (as regards abortion), or about job security and stability (as regards economic well-being), perhaps the authority of tradition continues to pull on many Americans, while tradition in other contexts is something we’ve moved away from, however regretfully.

Of course, my examples above show that we haven’t all moved away from the rhetoric of tradition entirely; we’re quite likely to be moved by it, or even to become contributors to it ourselves, when we’re dealing with something small, something local, something face-to-face. But when asked to weigh in on “hot-blooded” issues, things are harder. In regards to abortion, we think about our own daughters, and the mobility we hope for them; the rhetoric of tradition seems weak, and we turn to other arguments (assuming we even do). In regards to trade and outsourcing and wages, we may squawk and complain, but more often than not our inner libertarian, looking to keep our economic mobility equal to everyone else’s, comes to the fore, and the appeal of socioeconomic traditions of the past doesn’t touch us. But the potentially entangling responsibilities of marriage perhaps touch us still. Given how thoroughly the sexual and technological (and economic) revolutions I mentioned above have force people to adapt themselves to entirely different cultures of marriage, it’s an open question how much longer the many years of heterosexual fine-tuning in regards to marriage will continue to carry any traditional authority. Certainly many churches and other organizations are working to prevent that from happening, but they may be fighting the losing battle.

Tradition and American Political Life

First, let me thank my fellow contributors for this rich conversation. I am afraid that I am coming to this discussion a bit late and as a result I am not sure where to jump in. Part of the problem, I think, is that I am a historian and don’t spend a lot of time engaging in these kinds of contemporary debates. (As an early American historian I often tell my students that anything that happened after 1800 is not history, but current events!)

Eve Tushnet wonders why “marriage is the only area of contemporary politics in which tradition is used explicitly as a justification.” She wants something more “hot-blooded” than the local Chestertown tea party. Russell Arben Fox offers a similar local case, but ultimately concludes that if we “restrict ourselves to thinking about ‘hot blooded’ policy debates (as she put it), the paucity of references are striking.”

I am not sure I agree. It seems like tradition—whether historically accurate or not—is used quite often in public debates.

Let’s take the idea, defended by many on the Right, that the United States is a “Christian nation.” In this case, the defenders of a Christian America appeal to tradition—a lost “golden age” when America was somehow Christian. Most professional and critical historians argue that such a “golden age” never existed, but this does not stop the Christian Right from utilizing this understanding of the American tradition to inform policy decisions.

Or how about Christmas—a topic first introduced in Fox’s opening essay and picked up later, albeit briefly, in a response from James Poulos. Those defenders of a “traditional” Christmas, void of commercialism or secularism, believe that Americans need to get back to the true “reason for the season.” But in reality, as Stephen Nissenbaum and Leigh Eric Schmidt have argued, and as I have argued here, Christmas in America has always been connected to rampant consumerism and generally un-Christian merriment. Yet each December the so-called “battle for Christmas” rages as conservatives appeal to “tradition.”

What about the Tea Party? If you have been to a Tea Party rally, you know that this political movement draws heavily on its understanding of an American tradition tied to a libertarian rejection of big government. As historian Jill Lepore has recently shown, the Tea Party has run roughshod over American history, choosing to cling to what its members believe are the traditional values—freedom, resistance to taxation, rebellion against tyranny—that define America. In this sense, they are partially correct, but the history of the American Revolution is much more complex than this simple formula.

The traditions of a Christian America, a Jesus-centered Christmas, and a liberty-driven resistance to government intrusion, all play a vital role in American politics today.

Concluding Response to Fea and Others: “Tradition” vs. “Traditionalism”

John Fea suggests that the turn that Tushnet and I have made in our final exchange—in which I basically agreed with her in that the argument over same-sex marriage is the only major public policy dispute in America today where “tradition” is regularly invoked, though dissented in a few particulars—is missing the larger picture. Fea and I are in agreement that, on the local level (whether it be in his own example of Chesterton, Maryland, or my own of Wichita, Kansas), the rhetoric of “tradition” still regularly carries some real persuasive authority, but he implies that I go to far in agreeing with Tushnet about “hot blooded” issues. He proposes that the frequent references to America as a “Christian nation,” or those who argue (for religious or other reasons) that Christmas should returned to its “original” commerce-free meanings, or the Tea Party’s obsession with the U.S. Constitution itself, all constitute very serious examples of “tradition” being used in our public life.

As all of the participants in this month’s discussion have noted, “tradition” is an ambiguous word that can be used in a variety of ways with a variety of specific or general referents. And that variety can be confusing, a confusion which leads those of us interested in arguing about it at all to work from philosophy to politics and back again. Given that, I wouldn’t want to carve into stone any of the distinctions I (or any of my fine respondents) have made this month. But for purposes of moving the discussion forward, I think I could turn back to Fea’s original response, where he distinguished between “tradition” and “traditionalism.” In it, he cited Jaroslav Pelikan’s insightful distinction that whereas the former involves an active, “conversational” remembering, the latter “supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” I think that the cases Fea mentions might be better labeled “traditionalism,” rather than tradition; whereas in the case of the marriage debate, I think that, while an unreflective traditionalism does play a role, there is a much more engaged and interpretive dispute over tradition itself taking place.

In my first response to Fea, I compared Pelikan’s distinction to one made by Christopher Lasch, between “memory” and “custom.” I actually prefer this way of making distinctions in this context, because I find “traditionalism” a useful word. But in any case, the point is that there is one way of using the rhetoric of tradition that seriously struggles with its meaning, that respects that times have changed and that the particulars of the tradition itself have changed as they have been subjectively experienced by different persons over the years. And then there is another way of using the rhetoric of tradition, which is essentially a fetishism: a conviction that the authority of a tradition is dependent upon its remaining static and homogeneous. I really feel that this latter vision, while certainly being encompassed as part of the broad language of “tradition” in general, is what is primarily at work in the examples Fea gives.

Certainly this must be the case in the Constitution-worship implied by some of the more outlandish Tea Party claims we have heard over the past couple of years. The notion that the Constitution provides us with some obvious small-government and/or decentralist tradition, and that reading the text of the Constitution word for word in the House of Representatives is part of some sort of genuflection that will enable sincere constitutionalists to recover it, is simply bizarre. It isn’t, in any obvious sense, wrong—of course the political, legal, economic, and social ramifications of the U.S. Constitution have given support to keeping government small, fiscally restrained, and administratively decentralized, if one chooses to read it that way. But that is exactly the point: the subjective and interpretive experience of the Constitution’s words, in all of the above policy arenas and more, are evolving and have a constructive (but never necessarily arbitrary!) aspect; the result of more than 220 years of such is that the Constitution has been more often than not given support to the complete opposite: to a vision of democratic government which is expansive and centralized. (A Tea Partier truly engaged in the tradition of Constitutional interpretation would, as many of my co-bloggers at Front Porch Republic do, recognize that the achievement of her preferred aims may require a rejection of the Constitution in favor of the Articles of Confederation instead!)

Marriage, however, for the reasons I laid out in my second response to Eve Tushnet, is not subject, I think, to quite the same kind of fetishization. Those who find themselves torn over the issue of same-sex marriage (and of course there are many who are not, either because their religion teaches them that any public recognition of homosexuality is an abomination, or because their experiences have convinced them that marriage is nothing more than a self-interested contract of no intrinsic meaning) are caught up in a continuing argument over the reach of democratization, equalization, and mobilization in our lives. We want to move, and we want to move under our own authority, and yet heterosexual marriage, at least, seems to sometimes subject us to entanglements which require other sources besides our own personal preferences to work out. Hence, the memory of traditional marriage, and whether it may be adapted to continue to guide and vivify meanings for a host of once unrecognized relationships, continues to influence the argument productively, which I think is mostly not the case with the Tea Partiers and the Constitution.

My university, a small, nondenominational Christian, liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, is slowly beginning to recognize that it must figure out, as the world changes, if it wishes to be one of the great many universities which include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policies, or it wishes to continue to be one of the increasingly few hold-outs. As this argument builds, different faculty, for innumerable different reasons, will find themselves on different sides, as their own subjective understanding of what “Friends University” means, interacts with others, and with all the other pressures which the living in the world of higher education, and Kansas, and the United States of America, involve today. I do not know how the argument will end. But I do not believe that, however it ends, the “Friends tradition” will live or die with one decision. Moral principles may, but traditions (whatever their moral power) are not the same as such; traditions are the lived evidence of our remembering and making use of those principles. There are no traditions without arguments. Which is why it has been so appropriate, and so enjoyable, to have been part of this argument on Cato Unbound this month, and be engaged by three very challenging interlocutors. Thanks very much to CU for the opportunity!

Tradition and Foundations: Problems in Nature, Authority, and Equality

In his round of responses, Russell gives us much to think and talk about. Here I can only pluck out a few threads.

First, I applaud his care in noting that “modernity’s loss of an aristocratic, inegalitarian ethos” has not been “a total loss.” And I am intrigued that he follows this up by suggesting that the “experience of authority through communities and traditions is not so dependent” as I think “upon getting and keeping the foundations right.”

In his further response to Eve, Russell gives us a hint of how we might develop these points by proposing, in place of my use of the language of equalization, communitarian Michael Walzer’s language of “mobilization.” Russell seems to suggest that the residue of an inegalitarian ethos is capable of persisting in a world dominated by Walzer’s “four mobilities”—geographic, social, marital, and political. Perhaps our “mobilized” world is like something of an overlay atop some foundation that survives the modern destruction of old aristocratic authorities to supply a minimal kind of inegalitarianism.

Let’s draw that out. I am struck that all Walzer’s mobilities are horizontal, not vertical. Places of residence cycle in and out, as do friendships, family members, spouses, and affinity or interest groups; in a ‘mobilized’ world, we are all more interchangeable. Now, the triumph of equality, I think, is the necessary precondition for the triumph of interchangeability. I also think we are all likely to agree that interchangeability—and its attendant ethic—is not the necessary outcome of equality. The great sociologist of authority Philip Rieff described the foundation of Jewish and Christian faith, for example, as the recognition, in all its fullness, that there was only one God and only one you.

According to the tradition Rieff describes, our radical equality is deep but narrow. It is no less than an attack on our natural capability to render ourselves, sinfully, all too interchangeable. (It is an attack on the temptation to do so, too.) Rieff and the tradition he describes are concerned with something more foundational than Walzer’s mobilities—with the relation between supernatural and natural authority. Nature furnishes an authority with mixed messages: we are somehow both the greatest of all the animals and the kind of animal most capable of lowering itself through transgressive acts of interchangeability. Nietzsche tried to reconcile these two features, human nature’s inegalitarianism and its egalitarianism, into a single ethic, “Dionysian pessimism.” The Dionysian cult of the orgy revealed the truth, which Nietzsche thought sacred, that the destiny of the greatest few was destruction by disincorporation into the many.

Though he sought to overcome it, Nietzsche was firmly indebted to Western religion for his categories of thought. Biblical faith works to adjudicate both varieties of natural authority—aiming to edify, control, and perhaps overcome not only those elements of natural inequality understood as opening onto sin, but those elements of natural equality which did the same. Yet, as we all know, Christianity, especially in its ‘modern’ forms, has struggled to reconcile on its own terms the two parallel varieties of supernatural authority, egalitarian and inegalitarian, to which it lays claim. As we’re also aware, Christian inegalitarianism, no matter how sincere, honest, thoughtful, naive, or modest, is taken with a minimum of seriousness and a maximum of offense by fashionable public opinion, high, low, and middlebrow.

Christian egalitarianism, by contrast, as I suggested in my initial response, meets a different response. Interestingly, however, contemporary, ecumenical Christianity tries to insist that its vision of marriage is one of a supernatural overcoming of our natural interchangeability—two unique, irreplaceable individuals freely form a spiritual union in fulfillment of God’s design. From this perspective, it is possible to conclude that gay marriage is not simply okay but is just as holy as heterosexual marriage. Here indeed we would find a still-powerful residue of an inegalitarian ethos!

But would we call it aristocratic? Not quite. We still (rightly) associate ethics of aristocracy with an emphasis on nature’s authoritative inegalitarian character. Yet we also find that emphasis silly, suspect, even dishonest. Human nature hardly admits of really natural selection. Nowhere are more profoundly unnatural matches to be found than in a well-developed aristocracy. We democratic folk, in short, have a bad conscience when it comes to nature’s inequalities. To the degree we permit ourselves to acknowledge and celebrate them (strong men, beautiful women), we insist on as massive and public and unnatural a compensatory redistribution of the experience of those inequalities as possible (cross-platform media saturation). How much money our naturally best specimens make is virtually beside the point. The more naturally well-endowed an individual, the more public a figure we demand them to be.

It is entirely consistent with this democratic attitude that we look upon the privatization of inequality with anger. Our dynastic celebrities most assuredly do not run afoul of our cultural prejudices in the way that, say, young, handsome, wealthy, married white fathers of children groomed for distinction and exclusivity do. No one could set himself more fully against his time than such a father who believes that the deliberate development of such a family is the highest form of glory to God. Sure enough, that kind of undertaking is more than difficult in a mobilized, egalitarian society like ours. But my aim is not to hold it up for praise or scorn as a lifeplan. It is, rather, to dramatize the way in which the authority of nature—the one authority that would seem to remain after the all the artifice of aristocratic trappings were swept away by equality, mobility, and interchangeability—remains persistently ambiguous and problematic in contemporary life. On such uncertain ground, traditions—like the very concept of tradition itself—seem destined to be contested in democratic times.